Richmond Castle is exceptionally impressive, towering at over 300 ft, it is also one of Britain’s oldest stone keeps. There has been one on this site since 1088 . Richmond was granted to Alan the Red, Count of Brittany in 1071. Alan was a relation of William the Conqueror, a second cousin. His father was Count Odo of Brittany. He was part of Duke William of Normandy’s household and was at the Battle of Hastings commanding the Breton contingent.
As a consequence, Alan was an extremely rich and powerful man – a position that he improved upon when he helped to quell the rebellion in the North in 1069. Click on the image of Richmond Castle to open a new page listing all of Alan’s lands in the Domesday Book. He founded St Mary’s Abbey in York. His power base was the north and his building work demonstrates how important it was for him to make his mark upon the landscape. He also built the first castle at Middleham which was in the hands of his brother. By the time of his death he was the fourth largest landowner in England.
His ambitions included marriage to the King of Scotland’s daughter Edith also known as Matilda. William the Conqueror saw this as a step too far but somehow or other Alan had become entangled with another royal lady during this time. Edith was living at the nunnery of Wilton. It appears that King Harold’s daughter Gunnhild was living there as well. She may well have been sent there for her education as well as her own protection.
Alan’s plans for Edith fell through but apparently Gunnhild took herself off to Richmond to be with Alan. Seems straight forward? Well, it would be if there was only one source involved – did she go willingly or was she abducted? Was she a nun or was she simply living in a nunnery as many well-born women did? Was it love or was it a match between a Saxon and a Norman to secure for Alan the lands that came to Gunnhild via her mother (Edith Swanneck)? If the latter was the case, then Alan was seeking to secure some of his lands not just by conquest but also by union with the woman whose lands they rightfully were.
When Alan died in 1093, shortly after he carried off Gunnhild, his estates went first to his brother, the imaginatively named, Alan the Black and then to their younger brother Stephen.
As for Gunnhild, having eloped from her nunnery, she was in no hurry to return so she took up with Alan the Black and earned a stinging rebuke from Archbishop Anselm.
There is also the intriguing possibility that the dates given above are not the correct ones and that the correct story occurs much earlier. She and Alan eloped in the 1070s rather than just before Alan’s death. This isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. After all there are different accounts as to when he died – one gives the date as 1089 when he was very much alive. If the dates for the match are earlier then it is possible that the couple had a daughter called Matilda who was married to Walter d’Agincourt. Matilda gave large gifts of land at the time of her marriage to Lincoln Cathedral – these were all the property of Alan the Red. This version would, perhaps, also account for the seemingly dramatic swapping of one Alan for another.
Gunnhild is a chance discovery when I was researching Alan the Red to find out more about the man who built Richmond Castle. She’s sitting on the margins of history and once again the moth-holed accounts are tantalizingly incomplete.
Sharpe, Richard. “King Harold’s Daughter” The Haskins Society Journal 19: 2007. Studies in Medieval History
edited by Stephen Morillo, William North. This can be accessed via Google Books and makes for fascinating reading.